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April 19, 2014

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UN chief pushes for quick return to Syria talks

Updated Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014 | 10:33 a.m.

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The United Nations' secretary-general pressed the U.S. and Russia to help ensure that peace talks aimed at stemming Syria's civil war can soon resume, while Russia's foreign minister said Saturday that it was "very difficult" to push Syrian President Bashar Assad's government to make concessions.

A week of peace talks ended in Geneva on Friday with no concrete progress and no immediate commitment from Assad's envoys to return on Feb. 10 for more meetings with the Western-backed opposition as suggested by mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told a conference of global security officials in Munich that he urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting on the sidelines "to use their influence to ensure the talks proceed as scheduled on Feb. 10."

The U.S. has insisted that Assad cannot be part of a transitional government, while Russia has been a key ally of Assad's government.

Speaking to reporters on his return to Damascus, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said his delegation was "ready" and waiting for an invitation to return to Switzerland, in a statement carried on state media.

Ban urged the warring parties to "come back with more sense of earnestness as well as seriousness and urgency." Specifically, he called on "both sides and the government in particular to allow the unfettered access required under international humanitarian law."

An agreement to allow aid convoys into rebel-held parts of the central Syrian city of Homs has remained stalled, with the government and opposition accusing each other of holding up the aid delivery into the city, which has been under siege for nearly two years.

Lavrov insisted that "Russia can do nothing alone" and urged the U.S. and others to exert their influence on the Syrian opposition.

Lavrov said the humanitarian situation in Syria was "outrageous" but insisted "we've got to be realistic."

"I can assure you that we are putting daily pressure on the Syrian government," Lavrov said during a panel discussion at the conference. "It is a very difficult situation and to try to convince the government, which is waging a war, to make some gestures — this is a very difficult task."

Kerry raised concern over the humanitarian situation, especially in besieged areas such as Homs, when he met with Lavrov Friday night.

He also insisted anew that the creation by mutual consent of a transitional governing body must be a primary focus in the next round of talks, according to a senior State Department official who wasn't authorized to discuss the private meeting by name.

The meeting discussed the need for the opposition to expand its delegation, the official said.

The opposition delegation does not control armed groups inside Syria, including al-Qaida-backed militants, who say they are not bound by agreements reached in the talks.

Brahimi struggled to find positive words about the outcome of the first round of talks, but Lavrov welcomed "the modest but important results." He said he hoped they would be "deepened and expanded" in the next round.

Ban said that "it is hard going but we have made a start."

"The parties may still be fighting but now they are also talking - this is the only hope for a political solution," he said.

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Gier Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin and David Rising contributed from Munich.